Whenever a new Pixar film is announced, the new story already is at a disadvantage, living up to the acquired excellence, the studio has built up over the past decade and a half. There are big shoes to fill and for the most part, every film lives up to those increasingly high standards of filmmaking and storytelling. The Good Dinosaur, the next film added to Pixar’s arsenal of a filmography has the bones to make for another win for the acclaimed studio, but it doesn’t go the extra mile to secure its spot among the Ratatouille’s or Finding Nemo’s or Toy Story’s of Pixar’s podium.
At its core, the premise of The Good Dinosaur is quite intriguing, offering a ‘what if’ scenario as the setting. 65 million years ago, the meteor that was meant to wipe the dinosaurs off the face of the earth, causing the inevitable extinction misses its target, sailing past the planet into obscurity. A shot from ground level shows some dinosaurs eating, getting startled and going back to their dinner’s. Only a brief distraction that lasts a fleeting moment or two. Fast forward a few million years later and dinosaurs still roam the earth – they’ve evolved into what humans would eventually become.
Writer Meg LeFauve introduces us to a growing family of Apatosaurus’s led by Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand). Their children Buck (Marcus Scribner), Libby (Maleah Padilla) and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) are each given chores based on their strengths around their farm that harvests corn. Buck and Libby make their mark’s around the farm as poppa and momma proudly share in their children’s growth, however Arlo, the runt of the family struggles to keep up with his older siblings. There are profound moments shared between poppa and Arlo that LeFauve sprinkles in citing that Arlo is enough, that he isn’t a coward, but leave it to Pixar to familiarly force growth through tragedy.
After said tragedy, Arlo is separated from his family, following who he believes is the culprit that has been stealing corn from the families supply silo. In his separation, Arlo reluctantly befriends a feral caveboy he names Spot (Jack Bright). One of the creative ways LeFauve uses her ‘what if’ approach to telling this story is the role reversal between human and animal. Beyond its journey, The Good Dinosaur fails to latch on to any connective tissue it hopes to establish with its audience. 15 years in and the generation that grew up watching Toy Story has matured and Pixar has offered mature themes in return, The Good Dinosaur must not have gotten the memo.
What The Good Dinosaur lacks in emotional resonance, it certainly makes up for in its photorealistic, jaw-droppingly beautiful animation. As real as can be, the backdrop is almost too distracting from the actual story progressing. There are times when the landscapes take over but it’s the finer details that make the film pop. Every inch of every frame is filled with realism – and we thought Toy Story reinvented the animation wheel. Cinematographers Mahyar Abousaeedi (camera) and Sharon Calahan (lighting) make it look easy capturing the beauty of this revisionist world, brought to life by countless hours of animation from the team at Pixar.
Still, there is redeemable heft to LeFauve’s characters. Any parent will instantly connect to the relationships between Poppa Henry and Momma Ida with Arlo. Any parent fears their child being left behind, not progressing to where others are and constantly protecting them from any harm. On the flip side of this, a parent tries their best to push their children past their fears so they may overcome them and be better than their parents and The Good Dinosaur makes that connection early on and follows it through to the end.
That doesn’t mean The Good Dinosaur is without its theme’s surrounding Arlo’s journey. For 94 minutes, Arlo comes of age, he learns more about himself when alone facing his deepest fears than he does when surrounded by his family. Themes of courage and bravery lead the charge and to the younger audience in which this film is geared toward, the inspiration to find your place in the world will stick its landing. What’s missing is the next step, the depth and dimension to the characters that Pixar is known for (aside from the technological aspect). For one, both Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright don’t get enough of the emotional weight they can carry, even with their voices.
For the single person, the family connection won’t capture your attention but at least the breathtaking visual display will be enough to get lost in. This is the true potential of Pixar’s power – every blade of grass can be felt, the horizon is full of every color, fields and mountains are endless and every rock’s edge has a sharpness to it. Plenty of times before , a similar narrative has been told and all put out more solid efforts. For his feature directorial debut, Peter Sohn, who has worked on countless Pixar films prior, has big shoes to fill which only get half full by the time 94 minutes is up.
Story By: Erik Benson, Meg LaFauve, Kelsey Mann, Bob Peterson & Peter Sohn
Screenplay By: Meg LaFauve
Directed By: Peter Sohn
Music By: Mychael & Jeff Danna
Cinematography: Mahyar Abousaeedi (camera) & Sharon Calahan (lighting)
Starring: Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin, A. J. Buckley, Steve Zahn, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand
Where to Watch: Disney Plus
Edited By: Stephen Schaffer
Release Date: November 25, 2015
Running Time: 1 Hour 34 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%